Dead or gone?

We’ve had a bird box for several years. It was a housewarming gift from a friend. There it sat, an A-frame wooden box with a tiny porthole in the front so small we couldn’t imagine any creature getting in there, let alone getting out. So it became an adornment, a pretty fixture without function, until this year when we discovered we had squattters – a couple of blue tits. Neither of us is what you might call an ornithological expert. (There’s a distinction in the bird world between the folks with the binoculars – bird-spotters who are known as birders, and bird-lovers, more commonly called bird-watchers.). We just about scrape into the latter category.

Like everyone else we’ve become more attuned to the world of our backyard since lockdown, and more aware of birdsong in general since the background hum of traffic was so drastically reduced. But that was as far as our interest went, until the blue tits took up residence.

Slowly but surely, we found ourselves watching the nest activity with as much interest as the latest Netflix box set. Not only did our focus narrow and become more concentrated, but we became proprietorial and protective of the precious cargo in our bird box. We stopped putting out food because it only attracted the bigger birds – pigeons, blackbirds, crows – and we wanted to keep our nest a secret, and safe. We noticed how vigilant the parent tits were, never approaching the nest without first doing a 360 degree scope to check that they weren’t being watched. We found ourselves doing the same.

The blue tits’ presence gave us a stake in the life of the garden which up to this had been about plant care and control. Overnight, we became invested in the part of our environment we had no control over.

All through May we watched the frantic activity of the blue tit pair. The female usually lays a clutch of 7-12 eggs which are incubated for up to 16 days, during which time the male will feed the female. After 20 or so days, the birds are hatched. The chicks are born naked and blind and need to be fed continuously involving thousands of foraging trips in and out of the nest. It’s estimated that each chick can eat up to 100 caterpillars a day.

And then the day we were waiting for arrived – when the fledglings left the nest. There were only three of them and we didn’t see them tumbling out of the tiny porthole in the box, but we discovered them on the ground trembling behind our pots, or camouflaged in the branches of plants. They were not much more than three yawning beaks surrounded by a circumference of plump yellow fur on spindly legs. They cried almost soundlessly, opening and closing those beaks with the expectation that mother or father bird might drop a morsel in there. The parent birds duly obliged.

We were looking forward to several weeks of watching them grown and thrive, but the next morning they were gone. We couldn’t believe it. Had they become victims of predators – cats, crows, magpies? (Our one raised bed and our dozen or so pots didn’t provide them with much cover. ) Or had their parents moved them elsewhere to protect them?

The answer is we don’t know. The young can stay with their parents for a few weeks after hatching. But the blue tit mortality rate is very high. Two-thirds of fledglings do not survive their first year. Of a family of 2 adults and 10 young, only one adult and one young bird will typically survive to breed.

Of course, we want to believe “our” blue tits are now fully grown and living independent lives elsewhere but the Covidian stealth of their disappearance suggests otherwise.

It’s fair to say we were bereft. There was something bleak and disowning about looking out into the burgeoning yard and not seeing “our” friends there. The daily ritual involved in hatching and rearing had become an absorbing occupation for us, a show put on for our benefit and to find the place tenantless reduced our yard to backdrop again, rather than habitat. For a while we felt shut out of the secret life of our own garden.

We’ve thought of taking the nesting box down. Could we bear to face the whole rigmarole next year should the blue tits return? For the moment, we’ve left it where it is. After all, this is nature “red in tooth and claw” – to quote Ted Hughes – and now we’ve progressed to being bird-watchers, we know the drill.

Who said knowledge is power?

Punishing motherhood

Joanne Hayes and her daughter, Yvonne

Since the recent publication of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the historic – and not so historic – treatment of single motherhood in Ireland has been under the microscope.

The Commission was established by the Irish Government in February 2015 to provide a full account of what happened to vulnerable women and children in these church institutions during the period 1922 to 1998. What emerges from the testimonies is the cruelty meted out to young pregnant women, and the unconscionable neglect of their infants by religious orders who saw them as sinful and deserving of punishment.

But what of the women who didn’t go through this system, who kept their so-called illegitimate babies? Did they fare any better?

Just before Christmas, Joanne Hayes, one such woman, received an official apology and was awarded a High Court damages award of E1.5m for her treatment at the hands of, not the religious orders, but the State and its agents – including the gardaí.

A 24-year-old single woman, Joanne was in a secure family set-up which had already embraced her daughter Yvonne, born outside marriage. She was involved in a relationship with a married man, Jeremiah Locke, and became pregnant again by him in 1984. She gave birth to a baby boy, Shane, on April 13, but he did not survive and was buried on the family farm in Abbeydorney, Co Kerry.

At the same time, 80 kilometres away, the body of a new-born baby with multiple stab wounds was abandoned on the White Strand, Cahirciveen. A Garda murder inquiry led to Joanne Hayes because she’d been recorded as being pregnant, but not having a live baby. What followed was a grotesque miscarriage of justice in which Joanne and her family were pressurised into signing statements admitting to the murder of the Cahirciveen baby. When she told gardaí about the birth of her own baby, that was neatly tied into the narrative.

“I had to kill him because of the shame it was going to bring on my family,” gardaí claimed she had said. “When the body of the baby was found at Caherciveen, I knew deep down it was my baby.

Even when blood tests determined that the Cahirciveen baby could not have been Joanne Hayes’ by Jeremiah Locke, the gardaí persisted with a bizarre theory that she had given birth to two babies who were twins, but had different fathers. In the meantime, the family had withdrawn their statements claiming they had been fabricated and accused the gardaí of intimidation.

By October that year the murder charges against Joanne Hayes were struck out.

But that was only the start of it.

The Minister for Justice of the time, Michael Noonan, ordered an investigation into the Garda handling of the case and the following year the Kerry Babies Tribunal was established. The hearings lasted six months, and proved to be an excruciating ordeal for Joanne and her family. In a five-day long cross-examination, she was asked intimate details about her sexual life and practices and was painted as a predator, although the conduct of the gardaí was supposedly the remit of the investigation. She was forced to ‘relive’ the harrowing experience of childbirth in a field, and was interrogated about her menstrual cycle and use of contraception.

In evidence she and her family reiterated that they had been coerced both physically and verbally into making false statements that implicated them in the death of the Cahirciveen baby. However, while the tribunal report established definitively that Joanne Hayes had no connection whatsoever with the Cahirciveen baby, it insisted that she had assaulted her new-born with a bath brush and choked him to death, even though forensic evidence could not establish whether the child had achieved independent life. (It’s interesting that the family’s “statements” were full of such lurid descriptions.)

The gardaí were given a slap on the wrist for running a “slipshod” investigation, but the tribunal failed to answer the central crucial question: how did detailed statements from the Hayes family, identical in details known to be false, come to be taken?

In the High Court action Joanne Hayes took against the State, she sought to over-turn the tribunal’s finding that she had killed her own son since it was completely unsubstantiated and was made despite the fact that an autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death. She said the finding allowed gardaí to imply that she was “promiscuous”, and “a woman of loose morals”.

Last December’s State apology and legal compensation officially recognises – after 36 years – that Joanne Hayes was the victim of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment, unlawful arrest, assault and battery, abuse of power, conspiracy and emotional suffering and that her constitutional and human rights had been violated.

This barrage of power weaponry ranged against one young woman demonstrates that is was not just the Church which wanted to control and punish women who stepped outside the sexual norm. As journalist Gene Kerrigan, who covered the tribunal, said at the time, the Kerry Babies case raised issues that “had more to do with attitudes towards women, morality, sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth than any impartial attempt to establish the facts around the police investigation”.

Joanne Hayes was a woman who had chosen to have not one but two babies on her own, in the same hostile environment that drove thousands of single mothers into institutions where their children were taken from them. Sociologist Tom Inglis, writing about the case in 2004, observed that Joanne Hayes was not “the classic Irish single mother”. She did not hide, or give up her first baby, Inglis goes on. In that sense, she was “a bold and transgressive figure,” and the case illustrated how “sexually transgressive” women became isolated, marginalised and oppressed.

The public reaction to the case suggested that much public sympathy lay with Joanne Hayes, but as historian Diarmaid Ferriter remarks, ” it also underlined the extent to which women were still left to carry the blame and the stigma as a result of pregnancies outside marriage”.

Joanne Hayes became a symbol of realpolitik in that darkest of decades when divorce , contraception and abortion were central to the political discourse, but women were not.

Symbol or not, the odd thing is when you google Joanne Hayes, there are no images of her as she is now, a 60- year- old survivor. The photos of her that remain are from 1984/85 when she was in the eye of the storm.

It’s as if Joanne Hayes’ life stopped then, as if she died.

Of course, she hasn’t died. She has gone on to rear her daughter protected by her community and living determinedly out of the public eye. But the lack of any kind of media visibility is – e.g. she was not in court last December when the settlement was made – speaks of a woman, whose privacy and integrity was so traduced and manhandled (and I use the word advisedly) by the State, that she could not bear any further exposure, even to mark the public vindication of her reputation and character.

“My life has become pubic property and my body a subject for discussion all over the world,” she wrote in her autobiography, My Story, which came out in 1985. That was almost her last word on the subject.

Except for this: in a letter to journalist Nell McCafferty in 2006, pleading against the making of a film based on McCafferty’s book about the case, A Woman to Blame, she wrote: “I have to live with the past every day and for the rest of my life.”

But McCafferty had already sold the film rights and could do nothing: “Unfortunately, Joanne Hayes belongs to history,” she responded.

The murder of the Cahirciveen baby – subsequently christened John – has never been solved. The frenzied violence perpetrated on that baby suggests another equally dark chapter in the story of Ireland’s relationship to its uncherished children.

Make us recycle, Lord, but not yet!

Greenpeace model of a whale on Naic beach, Cavite in the Philippines. Photograph: Greenpeace

French theorist Roland Barthes fell in love with it. It is “ubiquity made visible. . . a miraculous substance,” he wrote in his ground-breaking book Mythologies. So what wondrous material is he describing?


Granted, he was eulogising it in the mid-1950s, when plastic was new and sexy.  By the end of the 1960s, however, the romance was over, as Philip Bell in Nature Materials (Nov 1, 2004) noted. “To the sixties generation, ‘plastic’ meant fake, worthless, an association crystallized in The Graduate in 1968, when all the hollowness of American consumerist society is revealed to Dustin Hoffman, through the famous career advice: ‘I just want to say one word to you. . .’ ”


Now there’s even less ambiguity about plastic.  It’s become just plain toxic.

And getting rid of it? Don’t get me started. Perhaps because I’m at home practically all the time due to lockdown, the small rituals of household management have become magnified, or else I’m becoming, horrors, more “mindful”.  Whichever it is, I’ve been struck by the sheer amount of plastic our two-person household produces, and how much of it we throw out every week, in a variety of ways.  

As well as the volume, the work of sorting it seems to have grown exponentially.

A tray of carrots, for example  – why can they not be sold loose? – requires you to separate the film/plastic covering – non-recyclable – from the tray – recyclable.  Then there’s the wrapper with all the brand and nutrition information.  This is sometimes paper or cardboard, but it can be laminated or coated with something shiny that makes it seem plasticized. So where does it belong?

First world problem, I know. But as we have learned, first world problems have a habit of impacting on the poorer parts of the globe. And plastic, most of which does not decompose, is a significant driver of global climate change.

Before I even get to decide how to clean and sort plastic waste, I spend a great deal of time, Alan Turing-like, decoding it. (I should definitely be getting out of the house more often.)

I realise that I’ve been confusing the Green Dot symbol (above) with the Widely Recycled logo.  The two can be easily confused on casual perusal, the kind you use when you’re tossing things in the bin.  I’ve often mistaken them in the past, that is, until I actually checked the small print. The small print that has to be chased down on the web.

The so-called Green Dot (which is actually an arrow) doesn’t mean the item is recyclable; it means the company which produced the product has donated money to the recycling of products somewhere in the world. Oh yeah?

Not to be confused either with what is called the Mobius symbol (above) which, according to Ireland’s official guide to waste management, “indicates that an object is capable of being recycled”.  Where is Barthes when you need him?

It does not mean, apparently, that the object “has been recycled or will be accepted.  It does not necessarily mean that it should be placed in your household recycle bin either”.


The most infuriating symbol, however, is the one that reads – Not Yet Recycled.

The adverbial use of yet suggests that its status is on the brink of change. Any moment now you can put this in the green bin, it seems to say. But this is a myth – a carefully elaborated fiction. Far from concentrating on making more plastic reusable, producers are intent on just making more plastic.

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t helped with its monumental demand for face shields, gloves, takeaway food containers and bubble wrap for online shopping, most of which cannot be recycled. 

Here’s the business bit. A special Reuters investigation, “The Plastic Pandemic”, published in October found that COVID-19 has intensified a price war between recycled plastic and new plastic, which is made by the oil industry.  “Nearly every piece of plastic begins life as fossil fuel,” its author, Joe Brock writes. 

“The economic slowdown has punctured demand for oil.  In turn, that has cut the price of new plastic,” the Reuters report continued. “The oil and gas industry plans to spend around $400 billion over the next five years on plants to make raw materials for virgin plastic.”

Virgin plastic?  (They mean new.) As if we don’t have enough with the experienced plastic that’s already been around the block?

The same report depressingly observed that of the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste the world has produced since 1950, 91% has never been recycled.

It’s enough to make the average consumer throw in the towel – but wait, which bin does that go in?

Meanwhile, our general refuse is swamped with material that is “not yet recycled”.        

Not yet?  Not ever, more likely.

The Pictograms of Plague

A picture can paint a thousand words, a saying ascribed variously to “the Chinese”, 1920s American ad man Frederick Barnard, or the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, depending on whom you believe. But the power of the pictogram cannot be underestimated. The facemask as a symbol of protection, or the footsteps plastered on the pavement as a metonym for social distancing, have become ingrained visual shorthand for all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ireland, the plague palette has been yellow and black.

All of the official informational postering and most of the pictograms have appeared in these two colours. How were they chosen? Well, for one, black on yellow is typographically clear and arresting and the posters contained a lot of information – and at the start of the lockdown a lot of new information – so visual clarity was very important.

A warning from the 1918 flu epidemic

Secondly, we are conditioned to reading these colours as signalling danger from our roads and hazard signage. Ireland signed up for the Vienna Convention on Road Signage – yes, there is such a thing – in 1968 along with 37 other countries, including the US , Australia, Canada and Mexico, agreeing to use warning signs that were black on a yellow background. This colour combination is related to the insect world and our perceptions of it, apparently – think bees and wasps for whom we have a healthy respect lest they sting us, so we associate their uniform with danger.

This may be an old wives tale, but whatever the reason, the colours together have a skull and crossbones vibe about them, so we’re primed visually to brace ourselves even before we get to read the message. This in a world where a whole new vocabulary is in place, or the old one has been repurposed.

Cocoon and vector are part of the new terminology; flattening the curve has shed its weight gain associations. Quarantine, self-isolation, furlough, asymptomatic, working from home and vaccination have taken on a new emphasis since the start of the pandemic – another word that’s bandied about freely now. But as Paul Elie – – argued in a piece in the New Yorker in March, we’ve been employing the language and imagery of viruses for many decades, just not to describe literal illness.

“It was there in the computer virus. . . It was there, most blithely, as an expression of the reach and spontaneity of social media. We watched as cat videos, practical jokes, blunders, over-the-shoulder half-court shots, and celebrity meltdowns all went ‘viral’. And it was there in the notion that those who could make things go viral were to be celebrated, cultivated, compensated, imitated. The term devised for them – we realise in rueful retrospect – has a distinct echo of the worst virus of modern times, the influenza pandemic of 1918. They were called influencers.”

But if such language has been lodged in the public consciousness, how many of the iconic images of the pandemic will survive in the collective memory? What will be COVID-19’s equivalent to Rosie the Rivetter? (The bicep-baring worker under the “We Can Do It” banner was created by J Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh in 1942 and became the defining symbol of working women during the Second World War in the US.)

My vote goes to the image at the top of this post created by Israeli designer Noma Bar – in an initiative organised by Spanish graphic designer Alvaro Lopez and Italian paper manufacturer Fedrigoni to raise funds for the NHS in Britain. Artists were asked to design a series of limited edition posters on the theme of observing lockdown. Bar, who’s resident in London, dedicated his design to frontline workers.

“I wanted the viewers to discover the house shape in between the gap of the mask and the head cover; the eyes are two people in quarantine sitting by the window. I think that you can feel the level of stress in the eyes. They look sideways as if something happened outside.”

With graphic simplicity Bar manages to communicate several layers of meaning at once – the burden on the frontline, the isolation of quarantine, the interdependence of the two, and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, the latter surely the hallmark of our time of plague.

The Catfight Theory

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist activist who led the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US in the 1970s

No sooner had the ink dried on the 10 Emmy nominations for Mrs America, a FX mini-series about the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US,  than veteran feminist activist and journalist Gloria Steinem came out to accuse the series of “misrepresenting history”.

The amendment to the US constitution, demanding equality of rights under the law regardless of sex, was  first mooted in 1923 and passed by the US Senate in 1972.  However, to become law the ERA had to be ratified by 38 states before a 1982 deadline.

It became a bitter battleground between the women’s liberation movement (pro-amendment) and STOP ERA , an alliance of the conservative right, headed up by pro-lifer Phyllis Schlafly, who successfully prevented it reaching that threshold.

This week Steinem penned an article in the Los Angeles Times  (along with Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation) decrying the series.  She insisted she was not writing out of a personal gripe,  although she says the show “gets my haircut right and my character wrong”.

The plot of Mrs America, she says, seems to depend on a trivialisation of women, putting  the failure to ratify the ERA down to personal feuding and female in-fighting. 

“Would a national legislative failure of the civil rights movement be attributed to a rivalry between followers of Martin Luther King Jr. and followers of Malcolm X? Somehow, we don’t think so,” she writes. “The bottom line is this: Mrs America has described deck chairs on the Titanic but lied about why the Titanic went down.  Instead it has given us the Catfight Theory of History.”

For anyone recasting history as fiction – which I’ve spent my whole writing life doing – this is a familiar complaint.   Luckily for me, most of the characters I’ve written about – Franziska Schanzkowska  a Polish factory worker who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, Bella Casey sister of playwright  Sean O’Casey, or most recently Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce – are conveniently dead. But Mrs America chronicles events that are only 40 years old, and some of the players are still with us, including Steinem.

The show runners face the same challenges as historical novelists – how to collate a large amount of factual  material and present it in a digestible way with a satisfying narrative arc and characters with whom the viewer/reader can identify, without distorting history.

“Hollywood can tell any story, regardless of history,” Steinem concedes, “but this one is being presented as fact, and has arrived in a perfect storm of circumstance. Months of COVID-19 lockdown have given the nine episodes of Mrs. America a captive-at-home audience, and reviews have focused on women’s hairstyles and individual rivalries, not the real reason state legislators voted against the ERA.”

As an avid fan of the series, I  wouldn’t dare to argue with Steinem. She was there, after all.

But there are health warnings before every episode making clear that it is fiction not history and flagging that certain liberties have been taken with the characters; also, the series creators can hardly be blamed for the reviews or the lockdown bounce that also helped Normal People on its way.

I came of age in the 1970s, the era of American feminism and politics depicted in Mrs America. I’d read Betty Friedan (played by Tracey Ullman) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), but I found this series illuminating because it introduced me to so much that I didn’t know. I’d never heard of Phyllis Schlafly, the central character of Mrs America.  (Steinem argues that the focus on Schlafly credits her with undue importance as an influencer.)

Likewise, I wasn’t familiar with Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) a three-term Democrat politician who battled to get women’s issues taken seriously inside the tent of congressional politics, and who led the National Advisory Commission for Women in the Carter administration – though she was ultimately fired unceremoniously by the president.

Neither, I’m ashamed to say,  did I know anything about Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba),  the first black woman elected to Congress and a pioneering candidate for president in the 1972 Democratic Primary.  (That’s 37 years before Obama!)  Was that colour blindness on my part?

I’m wondering how many viewers out there are, like me, reaching for factual accounts of the era, as a result of seeing Mrs America.  Fiction, with all its limitations and compromises, has the power to ignite interest in the history.  And there are plenty of sources available – Steinem’s autobiography, My Life on the Run, is one. Another is the LA Times’ helpful episode-by-episode fact check of  Mrs America so that the discerning viewer can make up her own mind about the show’s filter and emphasis.

Speaking of filters, the creative decision to view a lot of the action of Mrs America through Phyllis Schlafly’s point-of-view was a brave one, given her ultra-conservative views on abortion, gay rights and working women. Cate Blanchett gives a riveting performance that combines a calculating feyness with a steely intelligence.  Schlafly is not demonised here (though Betty Friedan famously called for her to be burned at the stake during a heated debate) but portrayed as a serious woman, whose political and career ambitions were also thwarted by the prevailing patriarchy she so actively embraced.

My criticism of the series is not in its “fictionalising” of real characters for dramatic purposes, but in its treatment of its fictional characters. “Alice Macray” – played by Sarah Paulson – is one of Phyllis Schlafly’s right-hand women, who becomes turned on –  literally – to the other side’s arguments at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977.  This was a major political event that attracted 20,000 attendees of all political stripes who met to draft a plan of action on 26 issues, including abortion, rape, childcare, and employment rights  – to present to President Carter.  Macray’s partial dark night of the soul eclipses the conference itself, which was characterised by Gloria Steinem in her autobiography as “the most important event nobody knows about”.

It may have been good drama to give one of Schlafly’s supporters a drug-induced Road to Damascus experience but it’s really a cheap Hollywood set piece. Interesting too, that it isn’t one of the feminist women who becomes a doubter – now that really would have been daring.

Equally underplayed is a counter-rally Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign group organised in Houston to clash with the conference, which attracted 12,000 supporters and was seen as a crucial turning point in American politics.

Historian Marjorie Spruill has argued that the alliances formed at this counter-rally –  between single-issue voters from disparate religious groups  – had the effect of uniting  opponents of abortion, the ERA and gay rights under a single “pro-family” movement that became increasingly influential in Republican politics. (President Trump gave the oration at Schlafly’s funeral in September 2016.)

The importance of the show is that it demonstrates that the ERA was not just about a battle for the hearts and minds of a sectional interest. As Spruill says: “The issues that polarised American women during the ‘70s basically have polarised the whole nation.”

This is what makes Mrs America so compelling.  Pace Gloria Steinem.

As for the Equal Rights Amendment.  Forty years on the ERA is still not law, even though in January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it.  But that 1982 deadline still holds.




















Press Button A

art of the glimpse

You’re wondering about the heading, aren’t you?

What has it got to do with The Art of the Glimpse (lovely title and exquisite cover design by  Owen Gent) of a new collection of  Irish short stories which features 100 practitioners of the form, old and new, including yours truly.  The anthology is forthcoming from Head of Zeus and edited by Sinéad Gleeson –  she of Constellations fame and the newly-announced winner of the Dalkey Book Prize.

Well, the story of mine that Sinéad chose is from my first collection A Lazy Eye (Jonathan Cape 1995) which is called “Divided Attention”.  It’s a story I have a soft spot for because it was the first time I wrote in the second person voice, but other anthologists haven’t shared my enthusiasm for it, until Sinéad came along, that is.

Because it was composed originally on an ancient Amstrad, I had to transcribe the story  on to my current laptop for Head of Zeus.  As I did some small edits along the way, I began to realise how archival the story had become in the 30 or more years since I wrote it.

It was an utterly 20th century creation, a story that couldn’t, and wouldn’t be written now.  Not because of political correctness, or the storyline, but because of technology.

Briefly, the plot is this.  The narrator, a woman in her thirties, shares her guilt about an affair with a married man, by confessing her feelings to a man who makes a series of abusive calls to her in the middle of the night.

Here are five props and devices (both plot and apparatus) I’d have to rethink if I were to bring the story up to date.

1.The landline: the telephonic encounter between the man, who is (mostly) silent, and the female narrator is  conducted exclusively on a landline. A what?

phone box

2. The phone box: the abusive caller, who’s engaged in what one might euphemistically describe as  digital activities (in the old-fashioned sense) while on the phone, uses a public phone box. Which is where the Press button A line comes in.  The phone kiosk referenced in this story featured a coin-operated phone.  You inserted your coins one by one into a slot on the top and dialled your number. When the other party answered you pressed button A in order to be heard.  (If there was no reply, you pressed button B and got your money back through a silver chute at the bottom – sometimes!) As I write this, I realise it doesn’t sound archival, it sounds prehistoric!

3. Caller ID: the narrator’s phone is a fixed, manual, non-digital, stand-alone instrument attached to a wall socket. It has no electronic display. Caller ID has not been invented.

4.  Public exhibitionism: The narrator describes a much earlier encounter with a man who exposes himself on the street.  For anyone of my generation, this was the persistent  sexual threat of our youth. There seemed to be no end of men in dirty macs whose full-time job it was to expose themselves on buses, in cinemas, on the street. The advent of the internet has driven them indoors; I imagine they’re all now porn purveyors on their screens at home.

5. Monetisation of the “dirty” phone call:  Nowadays you elect to experience smut on the phone, and you have to pay for it.  The free dirty phone call is a thing of the past.

Around the time I wrote this story one of my party pieces was a poem by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, called “Do Not Pick Up the Telephone” which I admired for its superstitious misanthropy.  It’s a most untypical poem of his in that it isn’t about eagles or crows, or nature, “red in tooth and claw”.  It’s about the perils of the phone, a purveyor in Hughes’ mind, of bad news and death.

I sought the poem out and realised that it’s almost as archival as my story.

Death invented the phone, it looks like the altar of death, he writes. Not any more, Ted.

You plastic crab, he berates it, which is a perfect analogy for those crouching models of the 80s and 90s, but not right for a slimline mobile.

World’s emptiness oceans in your mouthpiece/Stupidly your string dangles into the abyss – Mouthpiece? String?  All old hat with wi-fi, Ted.

But although the phone is as outmoded as the one in my story,  Hughes’ poetic rage remains admirably deathless!

“O phone, get out of my house

You are a bad god

Go and whisper on some other pillow

Do not lift your snake head in my house

Do not bite any more beautiful people. . .”

That’s the spirit, Ted!

The Art of the Glimpse includes work  – from across the centuries  – by Samuel Beckett, Sally Rooney, Melatu Uche Okirie, William Trevor, Marian Keyes, Kevin Barry, Edna O’Brien, Claire-Louise Bennett, Sheridan Le Fanu, Danielle McLaughlin, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor and Maeve Brennan – and 87 others!  It appears in October 2020.




Did you watch Normal People, Hilary?

hilary mantel

Today I should be basking in the afterglow of having met and introduced one of my literary heroines, Hilary Mantel, who was due to read at University College Cork on May 19, 2020. Like so many literary events, the show could not go on because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when you’re preparing for a public event like this, and it doesn’t happen, the questions still remain.

Some of my queries relate to the time before – the pre-virus world, if you like – and even in the unlikely event of the reading having gone ahead, the pandemic would, of course, have featured in the discussion.

Any interviewer starts off with a list of prepared questions, things she’s curious about, but the nature of a live event means that the course of an interview can never be predicted, much less managed. Because at its best, an author interview is an exchange and the interviewee’s answers often dictate the next question.

But given all that, here are some of the things I might have asked on the night.


How long did it take you to master the history of Tudor England, its politics and its events, before you started to write, or did that happen in the process of writing?

Why so hard on Sir Thomas More?

In the public mind, the Wolf Hall trilogy has probably eclipsed your other work – do you mind that?

My favourite novels of yours are Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Beyond Black. What’s your favourite from your pre-Wolf Hall work?

What marked your earlier novels out was the fact that no two were the same.  They explored very different worlds.  After 15 years writing the Wolf Hall trilogy – “working in the crypt” in your own words – do you crave a change from Tudor England?

The Wolf Hall success came after a lifetime of  writing to a loyal but limited readership.  Apart from the material rewards, are fame and acclaim welcome or intrusive, or both?


The Mirror and the Light came out just as the pandemic took hold.  It became for many readers the ultimate early lockdown read, for its totally immersive properties.  Apart from its size (over 800 pages, and as we know in pandemics size matters) and the fact that it’s the closure of a trilogy,  what else would give it resonance for readers now?

You have written very movingly about how chronic illness has shaped and distorted your life in your memoir, Giving up the Ghost.  How did your own relationship  with what Susan Sontag calls the “kingdom of the sick” affect your attitude to the COVID-19 crisis in which everyone has been touched by the spectre of disease?

Would you write plague any differently, post COVID-19?

In an interview you mentioned you’d discovered Irish author’s Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales during lockdown. You describe it as “truly one of the best novels I have ever, ever read. . . I wish heartily that I could have written it myself.”  What makes it so good?

Did you watch “Normal People”?



Una Watters goes solo

The Flute Player – 1953

For some time now I’ve been championing the work of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918 – 1965) whose reputation has, sadly, fallen into neglect. I’ve been working with Una’s family, in particular her niece, Sheila Smith,  in order to change this.  We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half trying to trace Una’s paintings with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition and bring her work to a new public.

This task has been harder than you might expect because much of Una’s work has been held in private hands since the mid-1960s.  Only two paintings of hers, that we know of,  have come up for auction in recent times – one in 2007, and another in 2019.  There’s a reason for this.  After Una’s sudden death in 1965, aged 47, her heart-broken husband, Irish language novelist and poet Eoghan O’Tuarisc (Eugene Watters) gathered together 37 of her oil paintings for a memorial show. Afterwards, he distributed all of Una’s paintings among family and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

The catalogue of this 1966 show formed the basis of our searches, but because of the way the work was distributed, there was very little in the way of a paper trail.  Given the time that has elapsed, many of the paintings have passed on to the next generation or the one after that in families, and people may not recognize Una’s work or know the story of how her paintings came into their possession.  That said, everyone we came across, and there have been many, was very attached to their Una Watters and glad to share images of her work.

Due to their generosity, we have been able to launch today (April 28, 2020)  – – a new website dedicated to Una’s work. This site collates the fruit of our quest with a gallery of some of the work we’ve found along the way. Our plans to host another retrospective show of Una’s work  – the first since 1966 – has been thwarted by the COVID-19 crisis but we’re hoping this site will be a virtual substitute for a show and will introduce Una’s work to the wider audience she deserves. We hope  may become a resource for those interested in Una’s work both as scholars and/or art enthusiasts.




Driven potty by tourism

lello 3When is a bookshop not a bookshop?

On a recent visit to Porto – luckily, a winter visit; you’ll see why later – we made our way to Livraria Lello, ranked as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. And so it is.  Built in 1906, the shop presents an exquisite art deco, Moorish style exterior and an arabesque interior of mock-gothic shelving, a ceiling with high-church stained glass panels and a Gaudi-esque staircase curling its way up through the store’s three floors like the demented manifestation of a Dali nightmare.

Not only was the shop beautiful, it was thronged.

What’s not to like when a bookshop attracts hordes of customers? Particularly when many of them were making a pilgrimage to honour an author? As a native of Dublin, this is a concept I’m familiar with;  after all, Joyce’s imagined characters from Ulysses, and the places they inhabit, get a special day of celebration devoted to them every year on June 16 for Bloomsday.

So what’s the problem? Tourism is what.

Livraria Lello started charging its customer a fee to enter (set against book purchases) in 2015 when it was swamped by so many visitors the shop couldn’t function as a business any longer.  The business of selling books, that is. Now when you arrive on Rua des Carmencitas, you’re steered to a shopfront two doors away to buy a ticket. Then you queue on the street outside to gain entry.  Since it was December, there were only about five people ahead of us so we got in without a wait.  But in summer, the queue stretches for several blocks and people wait for hours on end.

lello outside

Nevertheless, despite the short queue, the long, high, narrow premises seemed very crowded indeed. There were clusters of stationary people stuck behind displays and frozen in the narrow alleyways arms aloft taking photos with their phones.  That staircase, in particular, was jammed with people taking selfies.  On the display tables in the middle of the shop-floor, there were beautiful gift editions of English language classics for sale, Dickens, Flaubert, Wilde (Livraria Lello is also a book publisher with a long tradition) but no one was looking at them. Likewise the shelves were packed with fabulous books on the arts, the sciences, along with celebrated Portuguese authors like Pessoia and Saramago, three floors high.  But the crowds were not here for any of those either; they were here because of Harry Potter.

The Livraria Lello bookshop is supposedly the inspiration for the Flourish and Blotts bookshop for wizards in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling spent two years in Porto in the early nineties as an English language teacher and she wrote much of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while in the city.

Look, I’ve nothing against Harry Potter or the deserved success of J.K. Rowling. (Full disclosure: I’ve never read Harry Potter nor seen any of the films.)  Far from it, I see that Rowling managed to enthuse thousands of  reluctant child readers to tackle the long narrative, in the same way Enid Blyton did for child readers of my generation.  In fact, I’ve often thought that the Potter books are like Blyton’s boarding school series, just with wizards.

I understand completely why the Lello has monetized its premises.  It was, apparently, a failing bookshop, which it isn’t anymore. It’s a thriving example of cultural tourism, the same kind of tourism that fuels Bloomsday. But being a crushed sardine in a beautiful cathedral devoted to literature, to be unable to access, let alone browse through the books, because of the ever-pressing, onward urgent movement of the transitory visitors intent on the next photo op, was utterly dispiriting.

This was no longer a bookshop experience; this was closer to a bad airport trip.

The Potter brigade was not interested in the literary history, the architectural flourishes or the function of the shop. They were moved by the merchandising of a tiny, atomized sliver of J K Rowling’s fictional imagination. (I wondered how many of the Potter fans in the Lello shop that day had ever read the books, but just seen the films.)

“Livraria Lello is still a meeting place for thinkers, artists and writers,” the promotional pamphlet for the bookshop that we got with our E5 entry fee, declared, but it was hard to imagine it that rainy December Thursday.

Instead, the shop represented a depressing microcosm of viral tourism, in which volume distorts the very experience it seeks to promote.













Bringing up the bodies

nora b

T’is the season for exhumations. First it was Franco, now it’s Joyce.

Dublin city councillors agreed last week to approach the Government with a view to repatriating the remains of  James Joyce, buried with his wife Nora Barnacle in Fluntern cemetery in Zurich. Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, who proposed the motion, said it would be “honouring someone’s last wishes” – a delightfully vague locution. Does he mean Joyce?  Does he know something we don’t?

However, unwittingly, Cllr Lacey is right.  Seventy years ago, it was Nora Barnacle’s hope that Joyce’s remains be returned to Ireland. It was a matter of honour for her, perhaps tinged by a touch of funeral envy.

In 1948, still living in Zurich because she wanted to be close to her husband’s grave, Nora observed the official pomp and ceremony with which the body of the poet W. B. Yeats was repatriated to Ireland from the south of France where he’d died in 1939. (Yeats had long expressed a wish to be buried in Drumcliff  churchyard in Sligo.)

“The coffin was taken from France to Galway bay by a ship of the Irish navy; there the widow, her children and the poet’s brother were piped aboard.  Then a funeral procession escorted them from Galway to Sligo where Yeats was buried with a military guard of honour and representation from the Irish government,” writes Brenda Maddox in her biography of Nora. “Why not the same for Joyce?”

The answer at the time, of course, was that Yeats was in much higher standing in Ireland than Joyce was; he had served as a Free State senator, a “smiling, public man”, whereas Joyce remained in the Irish imagination of the time as “shocking, blasphemous and arrogant”, as Maddox puts it, whose books if not outrightly banned were seized at the borders.

However, unofficial approaches were made. Joyce’s American patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver asked Count Gerald O’Kelly, a former diplomat and art critic and Georgian afficionado, Constantine Curran, a boyhood friend of Joyce’s, to inquire if the Irish Government or the Royal Irish Academy would consider requesting the return of the body.

Miss Weaver believed that if Joyce’s remains were repatriated, then Nora and Joyce’s son, Giorgio, might consider returning themselves.  (Nora had told American interviewer, Sandy Campbell, that she’d like to have a “cottage in Ireland, but the Irish don’t like Joyce so there you are”.)

Maria Jolas, another lifelong campaigner for the Joyces, added her support saying that Joyce ‘s body should be be brought back because his widow wished it and because he was a towering figure of Irish literature.  With a view to her audience, she also declared that Joyce remained a good Catholic.

But this view was not shared in Dublin.  Count O’Kelly’s back-channel inquiries revealed there was little support for Joyce’s repatriation.  Ireland had apparently not forgiven him for his scandalous work and the plan came to nothing.

Unlike the 1948 campaign, the present move by Dublin city councillers seems motivated more by gain than honour.  The James Joyce “industry” has long been a tourist goldmine for the city.

The Bloomsday celebrations – memorialising June 16, 1904, the day Joyce had his first date with Nora, and the date he chose to set his novel Ulysses on – is a fixture on the tourist calendar, although it started as a spontaneous tribute to the writer by a small group of literati in Dublin.

Comic writer Brian O’Nolan (otherwise known as Flann O’Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen), poet Paddy Kavanagh, writer Anthony Cronin, registrar of Trinity College, A J Leventhal, publican John Ryan and dentist Tom Joyce, a cousin of Joyce’s, made the first Bloomsday pilgrimage on June 16, 1954.

The shambolic expedition, complete with two horse-drawn cabs – echoing the one taken by Bloom and his friends to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses – was cut short before all the sites in the novel could be visited, due to the amount of alcohol that was consumed and the fractious mood of the participants. (Fisticuffs threatened between O’Nolan and Kavanagh)

Since then, Bloomsday  – still observed and enjoyed by Joyce’s literary admirers – has been all but hijacked for its tourist potential by the Dublin authorities.  It’s those same authorities who’ve been leading the charge to dig up Joyce from his burial place in Zurich and bring him home.

The Swiss authorities are thinking the same way. Director of the Joyce Foundation in Zurich, Fritz Senn said there would be “resistance” in Switzerland as Joyce’s  grave has become a major tourist attraction there. After all, Senn pointed out, Joyce never accepted Irish citizenship and the Irish Government of the time neglected to send an envoy to his funeral.

The Swiss provided much-needed sanctuary for the Joyces at the the outbreak of World War 2 and Nora continued to live there till her death in 1951.

Both cities clearly have their eye on the next big Joyce anniversary which comes in 2022, marking 100 years since the publication of Ulysses. 

In the meantime, is it a case of bring up your bodies? If so, who’s next – Samuel Beckett?  Look out, Montparnasse!